Epi Gutierrez owns a landscaping business that employs six people in Tampa. But two of his employees plan to leave Florida in less than a month because they and their families no longer feel safe, he said.
The reason for their sudden departures, according to Gutierrez, was an immigration measure that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed last month that imposes new penalties and restrictions that are considered among the toughest in the nation. It becomes Florida law on July 1.
“They have a steady job with me, but they don’t know what’s going to happen after July,” Gutierrez said. “It’s simply: They don’t want to take a risk.”
Gutierrez was in West Tampa on Thursday to join protesters who lined up along the busy intersection of Dale Mabry Highway and Columbus Drive, each a 10–lane divided roadway. They carried American and Latin American flags and shouted in Spanish, “Estamos aquí,” (We are here), and, ‘Sí se puede,” (Yes, we can).
They gathered at 10 a.m. and remained for four hours, encouraging drivers to honk their car horns in support.
Dubbed “Un Día Sin Inmigrantes,” or a Day Without Immigrants, organizers held events in Tampa, Jacksonville, Orlando, Vero Beach and the farm communities of Pierson in Volusia County and Immokalee in Collier County. The Florida protests were part of a larger nationwide effort to oppose anti-immigration legislation across the country.
The new law expands requirements for businesses with 25 or more employees to use E-Verify, an online federal system that checks the legal status of workers and imposes penalties on employers if a person without the necessary documents is discovered working for them.
The measure will invalidate driver’s licenses issued by other states to people unable to prove lawful presence in the country and will prohibit local governments from offering IDs to those living in the U.S. illegally. Some provisions will allow authorities to impose fines and third-degree felony charges for anyone “knowingly” transporting people without legal status into the state. It will also require hospitals that accept Medicaid to collect patient immigration information and will assign $12 million for the relocation of migrants outside Florida.
Supporters of the law say it will help ensure a legal labor force and protect against unfair competition from employers who hire immigrants without checking their documents. DeSantis, who declared his run for president last month and was campaigning in New Hampshire on Thursday, has made the legislation a key issue in his bid for the Republican primary vote.
“We’re protecting Floridians, to the full extent of our ability,” DeSantis said last month.
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But critics said the legislation would be harmful to families, citizens, and those with mixed immigration status. In Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, the essential workforce includes 30,000 people without legal status — 14% of the total, according to FWD.us, a bipartisan organization working to reform immigration and criminal justice systems.
One of the organizers, Lurvin Lizardo, a Honduran community activist, said she had friends planning to move to other states by the end of June.
“They were not comfortable with it,” she said.
Alfonso Bautista, 36, a construction worker in St. Petersburg, has been following the movement and participating in calls on social media platforms ever since DeSantis signed the law.
He came to the rally to say Florida needs to support their people.
“Just think for a minute: Who’s the person working in the fields, fixing your roofs or taking care of your office and home?” Bautista said. “This is Florida, and it’s our home, too.”
Eugenia Peña, 55, a restaurant worker, and her daughter Sandra, 33, a medical assistant, also attended the protest. Both stood on the side of Dale Mabry, spinning a sign with a clear message: “Immigrants make America great! Period.”
Peña, who’s from Mexico, said she believed that the immigration law affected everyone in the state of Florida. She works in Clearwater and has documents showing her legal status in the U.S., but two of her brothers and her sons-in-law do not.
“How can you work without thinking about your own family?” she asked. “I’ve been living in this country for over three decades and I never imagined that something like this could happen. We contribute to the economy of Florida!”
Gutierrez, a 29-year-old Mexican American, closed his landscaping business for the day so he could protest. He said he wanted his voice to be heard because he believed that the immigration law was more than just a political maneuver.
“It’s an attack on human rights and our dignity,” he said.